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This week we are excited to introduce you to shark scientist Chris Bird. Chris is from the UK and is currently working in his PhD studying deep-water sharks. These sharks often go unnoticed, but are new light is being shed on their importance in the ocean ecosystem and just how amazing these creatures are. We look forward to seeing images from Chris in the near future. Chris is another alumni of the Bimini at the Bimini Biological Field Station. Check out his BLOG for more information about his current research and adventures.
1. How old were you when you saw your first shark?
I must have been 5 or 6 when I first saw a shark, on TV that is. I was obsessed with wildlife documentaries as a child and used to love watching underwater films. My parents used to take me to aquariums quite often as well and remember seeing sand tiger and lemon sharks from a young age. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I saw my first shark on a dive though – it was a nurse shark hiding under a rock.
2. What is your favorite species of shark and why?
My favourite species is the velvet belly lantern shark (Etmopterus spinax). It is a deep-water shark found mostly between 200-500 meters (656-1,640 feet) that is covered with glowing “photophores” (lots of tiny organs that emit light) on its underside. This helps the shark camouflage itself from light that shines down from above. It also has two glowing spines (like light-sabers) on its back near its fins. This is thought to deter predators (usually bigger sharks) from attacking it. It’s a shark that glows in the dark!!
3. What is one species of shark that would really like to see in the wild?
One shark I would love to see in the wild is the Greenland shark. It is one of the largest deep-water sharks. They often come into shallow waters, which make it possible to dive with them. They have been known to eat polar bears and moose and some individuals are completely blind because of a parasite in their eye!
4. What made you want to become a marine biologist/ecologist/zoologist?
I was more interested in the natural world in general to start with. I have always wanted to know the answer to how life started, how things work, why things are the way they are. At college I studied Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Maths. These subjects could give me the answers to questions I had always had. I was always more interested in Zoology and in particular animal behaviour. I think it was a natural curiosity that I have had since I have been a child. I really wanted to know why animals did what they did and how they differed from us as humans. I was fascinated by ants communities, bird navigation and of course my favourite animals the sharks. After learning about the huge problems sharks faced in the modern world from shark attacks & shark finning, I decided to pursue it further through University. They were a fascinating group of animals that were globally threatened, the ideal candidate for scientific obsession.
5. Tell us about one of the coolest things you have gotten to see or do because of your job/research?
I worked out on a small island in the Seychelles that involved a lot of diving and shark tagging. It was a dream trip for me. Working with just a principle investigator, a dive instructor and a skipper, the four of us installed underwater equipment, dived everyday and tagged loads of sharks. It was such a remote location and such a pristine diverse environment to work in. To be in such a beautiful location and to be researching/diving/tagging sharks everyday was a great experience that I will never forget.
6. If you could tell the world one thing about sharks what would it be?
Millions of sharks and rays are killed every year by fishing. Some fisheries target sharks for their meat and fins where as others catch sharks by accident when fishing for other fish such as tuna and swordfish. Whilst most people know about the problems faced by bigger coastal sharks, very few people consider the problems faced by deep-water sharks. They are the most vulnerable group of sharks to fishing pressures. Deep-water sharks are slow growing, take a long time to mature and have very few babies when they reproduce. As fisheries are now fishing deeper in the water, a lot of these very sensitive sharks are struggling. The trawling methods (dragging a heavy net along the sea floor) often used by deep-sea fisheries, destroy the habitats down there and kill most things in its path. We know very little about deep-water sharks, which makes it hard to tell how badly they will be affected by fishing. These deep-water sharks are vital to the health of our oceans. Removal of such species could have devastating effects across many other ecosystems.
7. Describe your typical day of research or work?
I have spent lots of time above and below water for my research over the years. The questions we are trying to answer with our research have never been answered before. The research we do is expanding our knowledge of that environment or animal. My current research is exploring the deep-water sharks as far down as 2km (2000 meters, 6.561 feet)). We know so little about the sharks down there because they have been so hard to gain access to. With modern technology and techniques it is now possible to start answering some of the mysteries surrounding the deep-sea sharks. Where do they live, what do they eat and where do they move? The only down side to working at sea is seasickness. It is hard to work in rough conditions when feeling ill. I am very fortunate to be working within a field I am so passionate about though and occasional seasickness is a small price to pay.